Prochlorococcus: the “invisible forest” in the ocean’s Outback.
The smallest, most abundant phototroph in the world, Prochlorococcus, dominates the base of the food web in the “Outback” of the world’s oceans, the nutrient-depleted ocean gyres. This unicellular, marine cyanobacterium, unknown only 30 years ago, is an oligotrophic specialist with a streamlined genome and reduced cellular requirement for the limited resources available in this environment. Based on physiological and molecular analyses of isolated strains from different oceans and depths, two broad groupings of Prochlorococcus were characterized: high- and low-light adapted “ecotypes”. Within these broad groupings are many subclades, some of which have been shown to dominate under certain temperature and light conditions. Through additional culture-based studies, my lab has been exploring nutrient physiology and other physiological characteristics that may contribute to the ecology and evolution of other Prochlorococcus subgroups. Some subgroups have the capacity to utilize nitrate, which was not the case for the initial isolates of Prochlorococcus, and others differ in their pigmentation. We have also found that Prochlorococcus regulates its uptake velocity and specific affinity for inorganic and organic phosphorus under P stress conditions. Examining the physiology, ecology and genomics of Prochlorococcus isolates and natural populations is providing insights into how these tiny photosynthesizing cells create a stable, yet invisible forest in the deserts of the world’s oceans.